Paul Bowles was born to Rena Winnewisser Bowles, a homemaker, and Claude Dietz Bowles, a dentist, on December 30, 1910, in the borough of Queens, New York City. His father was, as Bowles later recalled, a bad-tempered man, easily given to child beatings to enforce his will. Perhaps it was fortunate, then, that Paul’s father was so addicted to his golf game that he was away from home on weekends whenever the weather permitted. Rena Bowles excused her husband’s child abuse, but she showered attention on her son, devoting considerable time to reading poetry and playing music for him. She realized Paul had artistic proclivities and wanted to encourage them.
Like many creative young people who are abused, however, Paul retreated into himself, refusing to socialize with other children and, out of spite, beating weaker classmates symbolically to get revenge on those who beat him at school. His life was hellish, but it did encourage him to develop his creative powers.
After finishing secondary school in New York in 1928, he attended New York’s School of Design and Liberal Arts for a matter of months, then went on to the University of Virginia; he stayed there only six months, however, before leaving for Paris in 1929. He went to Paris at the behest of famous composer Aaron Copland, and in Paris he discovered not only what pursuits he would follow but also where he would spend most of the remainder of his life: in Morocco. It would take another trip home to New York, then another semester of studies at the University of Virginia before he would become a true expatriate. The restless young man traveled to Berlin in 1931 and 1932, where he studied music under another great composer, Virgil Thomson.
Nevertheless, it was Bowles’s return to Paris in 1933 (he would stay there for a year) that gave him his twin missions in life: He would compose serious music and he would write. While he was there, either Gertrude Stein, American expatriate novelist, or her lover, Alice B. Toklas (the story varies), advised him to find the perpetual summer weather he craved as well as the splendid isolation from Western ways he also sought by moving to Morocco. In 1937, he turned to writing music in Tangier, Morocco, a small but highly international city across from Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. Although he turned his attention to composing scores for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke...
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